"Are you coming to breakfast?"
"I will have to, won't I?"
The Warden was seated on the edge of Loghain's bed, her head in her hands, as she rubbed away the cold, dreamless sleep of the night before. Her mind felt drowsy, awoken too early from a desperately needed sleep. But her senses weren't as sluggish as her mind, and the mage-eye behind the leather of her eye patch gave her a clear enough view of the room, and her keen ears picked up the shifting and creaking of the floorboards as Loghain came to a halt at the bedside. He was standing above her, looking down his impressive nose at her, all immaculate shining armor and well-groomed braids. It was obvious that he had woken sometime before her, shaved and tended to his ablutions, and dressed. He smelled like soap and polish. And she, still in the armor she had worn yesterday, her braid fraying and hair straying, was still slashing away at the sleepy cobwebs that clung to her eyelids. She put a hand to her mouth and yawned. Yawning was a good way to mask the feelings of embarrassment and self-loathing that had arrived upon her waking. She was shamed; she had given into weakness. Unable to carry on privately and stoically, she had fallen into Loghain's bed, crawling into it in the dead of night like a scolded cat.
"That is," he admonished, "not the answer I was looking for."
"I am moody in the mornings," she drawled, yawning again, this time with a loud, over-emphatic groan and an almost comical rolling of her head and neck.
"You are moody all the damn time."
"I did warn you," she replied. She rubbed the sleep from her grey eye once more, careful not to disturb the leather strap of her eye patch that concealed the mage-eye. "Side effects of the Joining are not limited to an increase in appetite. Expect general surliness, moodiness, and a desire to wipe the smirks off other people's faces." It was also a side-effect of the mage-eye. The eye was always watchful, always spinning, and so even when the Warden was asleep she was, in part, awake. Input from the mage-eye occasionally influenced her dreams, turning palatial rooms into wooded forests and vice-versa depending on where she had settled down to sleep.
Loghain grunted something and rolled his eyes. "You need to come to breakfast."
The Warden lifted her shoulders and dropped them repeatedly, making her pauldrons clatter against her breastplate. For having spent the night huddled in the corner of Loghain's bed, she was not as sore as she expected. She surmised she had just grown used to sleeping in her armor. "I need to get ready. Would you have me come to breakfast and be late?"
"Better that you are there than not at all." Loghain sighed and sat beside her on the bed. "If you won't do it for yourself, and you won't do it for me, do it at least for the boy you brought into this mess."
Loghain had, for better or worse, drawn a line in the sand. He had told the Warden, in words that he felt she needed to hear, that she was not fulfilling her duties. Where her Wardens were concerned, she was lacking. And where her politics were concerned, she was too focused. She had to leave off one to reinforce the other. But thoughts of "me" and "my problems" fell to the periphery of her mind as she considered what Loghain had said. "What do you mean?" She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head curiously
"Carver's been on the receiving end of general Grey Warden maliciousness while you've been away."
"Let me guess," she groaned, "Nathaniel and Anders?"
"What are they doing?"
"What do you expect they're doing?" Loghain shook his head. "If they aren't asking him questions and then deliberately ignoring his answers, then they're acting up in the training grounds."
Loghain let out a dry chuckle. "Come out this afternoon and see for yourself."
"I will." The Warden narrowed her eye. "On one condition."
"What is it?"
"That you do your share of the administrative work."
Loghain frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but was promptly silenced by the placement of the Warden's gauntleted fingers against his lips. The touch wasn't gentle, and Loghain's bottom lip was dragged downward with the angle of the Warden's wrist.
"In order to save us future embarrassment and future hardship, let me tell you how this partnership will work," the Warden began. She removed her finger from Loghain's lips, letting it hover in the air for a few moments to see if he would try and interrupt. Seeing only Loghain's expectant gaze, she lowered her hand to her lap and pressed on. "If you want me to spend more time with the Grey Wardens and less time acting as Arlessa, then you will need to shoulder more of the administrative burden. I cannot," and she said this with vehemence, "go traipsing around Ferelden with the Grey Wardens and leave the Arling to run itself. That is not how it worked in Highever, and I am quite sure that is not how it worked in Denerim or Gwaren." She saw by the deepening of the crease in Loghain's brow that she was probably right - after all, Loghain had thrown himself into the role of king-by-proxy, running Ferelden while Maric did what Maric wanted to do, and Loghain couldn't deny that he had relied on the help of Maric's privy council.
"And how do you - "
She scowled. "Let me finish."
The Warden closed her eye and shook her head. "I know you hate politics, but if you want me to do this, then you must make a sacrifice of your own. While I train the Wardens, while I lead them to hunt down darkspawn, you must see to the people of the Arling. It is irresponsible to do otherwise. The Grey Wardens need a leader, and so does the Arling. And," she fixed him with a stern gaze and took a quiet breath, "if you cannot assist me while I am away, if you cannot bear to stomach the burden of politics once more, then you will take the Grey Wardens out, and I will see to the people of the Arling, and I will do so with no complaints from you."
Loghain licked at his lips. "May I speak?"
"Not if it is in disagreement." She laughed bitterly, the low peal of laughter bubbling up from the roiling, toiling storm of her insides. "I can do a great many things, but I cannot do the duties you ask of me without somehow excluding others I must attend to - necessary duties in their own right. This is," she struggled to form the words, her shoulders lifting and her brow crinkling, "still too new."
"I see." Loghain inhaled deeply and said nothing more for a few moments. His nostrils flared as he exhaled. "What about Seneschal Varel?"
"No! You." The Warden scolded. "And to think, you suggest that I am the coward? Do not shift the burden elsewhere. I have given you my terms. If you will not accept them, then you must take me, the Arling, and the Grey Wardens as they are."
A long silence passed between them, and Loghain sat looking at his hands throughout it. He did what she had seen him do before, turning his hands palm up, then palm down. Hairy, scarred, and rough, his hands were a man's hands, a farmer's hands, a soldier's hands. "If," Loghain said slowly, "you come to the practice yard, this afternoon, I will give you my answer." He did not look at her as he spoke.
The Warden had felt those hands on her - they cupped swells and mounds, and stroked down heated skin, traced scars and birthmarks, and held her body still. They'd been tangled in her hair roughly, and stroked through her hair with deliberate precision. The hands had inflicted bruises, but they had also held wounds shut to stop the bleeding. Loghain's hands had done many things for her, to harm her, but to also heal her. She knew each callus as her own, as well as every pebbled vein and scratched knuckle. She liked Loghain's hands. Even when she was angry with him.
"I intended," the Warden stood and used the opportunity this time to look down at him, "to be there anyway. Until then, I will await your answer." She heard Loghain's footsteps behind her, shadowing her all the way to his door. Respite, an opportunity to gather her thoughts without scrutiny, was not forthcoming.
"You are coming to breakfast?"
"Yes, yes." She waved an angry gauntlet away from the large hands he rested on her pauldrons. "I said I would come, and so I shall be there. Give me a few moments to at least wash my face and address the state of my hair." She knew she looked a sight, and thinking herself properly explained, she left. But Loghain was still on her heels, hounding her all the way into her own room. "What is it?" she asked, turning to face him. She put her hands on her hips and frowned at him, doing her best to bring the thin slivers of her eyebrows together in her deepest, most fierce scowl. "You are following me." And she did not like it.
Loghain had gone from pensive to something else entirely. He laughed - easily and rather kindly - at her expression. "Why the accusation? It is my duty to follow you." He looked at her in a way that she hadn't seen for a long time. It was not the wondrous way he watched her when she was naked, nor was it the cold, stormy stare of his anger and disappointment. This was tender, amused, somewhat reserved, and...fatherly.
The Warden felt her good eye twitch. "Do not look at me like that." It was not all that long ago that she'd blurted out to him what her last moments with her father had been. She had, in the face of someone who was both an enemy and an ally, admitted a weakness; something that was haunting her. She had meant it in warning, to stave off future moments of sentimentality, of pretentious nostalgia. The revelation had not been to extend a hand, to give some startling insight into who and what she was, though it seemed to her that Loghain had taken it that way.
Normally, they fought with all the fury at their disposal. Loghain attacked with the slap of his experience, and the jaw-shattering punch of age. The Warden drove her thumbs into the eyes of wisdom with her youth, and ripped at its throat with the indefatigable energy and righteousness that came with it. Even their most petty squabbles were approached in the same manner - one did not need to be explosive or bombastic to be cruel. They could be subtle: Orlais had been an example of that. But clearly, this wasn't a fight, or if it was, it was a one-sided one. The Warden's anger was being weathered by Loghain's curious approach... one that the Warden could only assume had been born from her admission a few nights previous.
And if that was the case, it was unsettling how well Loghain knew her father, how well he had watched both she and he interact over the course of her years. Because her father rarely ever fought with her. If she took issue, he laughed. He chuckled at her resentment, found it amusing. Of course, there were times when her father became angry with her, and she became angry with him, and those fights were as cold and momentous as the carving of a valley by a glacier. But for the most part, Bryce Cousland met Aurora Cousland's ire with good humor.
And now Loghain Mac Tir was doing the same - and it would not stand.
She could not indulge the vulnerability.
Loghain raised a black eyebrow. "Like how?" His expression had not changed, in fact, it had worsened. He was now smiling.
"And how is it that I am looking?"
"Like," the Warden licked at her lips and chewed the words, "like my father."
He had the decency to give a loud scoff.
"Loghain," the Warden drew away to the far side of her bedroom as she spoke, trying to put distance between them, "this is awkward. I will meet you in the hallway in a few minutes..." A foot clad in heavy boots knocked over a pile of books against the wall, sending them crashing to the ground. Dane awoke at the sound.
She too two deep breaths, considering her words carefully. "You are not my father. You are my Second."
"And," he added pointedly, "your lover."
"Yes, and my lover." She pursed her lips. Consider how being my father, or a replacement of him, would make that difficult for both of us."
"Aurora," and with this Loghain stalked towards her, coming close enough so that he could rest his hands upon her shoulders, "I have no intention of being your father. But the last girl your age I dealt with when she was maudlin was my daughter. You'll have to excuse me if I resort to tried and true battle strategies. I'm far too old to deal with it any other way."
"If," the Warden stiffened and pulled away again, "I am maudlin, it is your doing."
Loghain let out a grunt of frustration. "Maker, girl, can I say nothing right?"
"At this point? Probably not."
"Get it through your head: it is only because I care. I shouldn't, but I do."
The Warden shook her head. "I understand; but sometimes it is better to just say nothing and leave me be than to persist in...in..." She couldn't even think of the words.
Loghain took her silence as an opportunity to act. But when he took her face in his hands she resisted, turning her face away from the lips that fell upon her. A kiss meant for her forehead landed on her temple, and she felt Loghain's warm breath reeking of sleep blowing against her hair. There had been moments like this before, angry moments and sad moments, all breathed into life by tempers flaring and doors being slammed in the Great Castle of Highever.
"You are a curious, prideful girl."
"Like chewing on pearls." She bristled at his laughter, the rueful chuckle, and the fatherly touch of his fingers against her shoulder once more as they wheedled their way past metal to press against the leather below it. Loghain was not giving up. No matter what she said, she could not drive him away. She could not stop him from making her feel vulnerable. "I need to finish getting ready. And I need to do something about my hair." She tipped her head forward, displaying her crown of messy and matted curls for an affectionate kiss, letting Loghain believe that he had won - because that was the only way this would end. She could win the war, even if she let herself lose this battle. There was nothing wrong in an intentional, calculated loss.
Loghain didn't kiss her forehead, but he seemed to sense the gesture and nodded. "I'll wait in the hall."
"Thank you." The Warden watched him pick his way to the door, Dane happily trailing after him and barking at him to hold the door open just a few more moments so that he could squeeze through. When both Mabari and Second were gone, she quickly put herself together. She pulled off her gauntlets and eye patch, scrubbed at her face, combed and styled her hair, and then using what precious paint she had, she covered the healing splotches of red and broken veins over her nose and cheeks. Knowing that she did not have enough time to strip and change, she settled for rubbing a cloth over her breastplate and other pieces of armor until they were shining. She also, for whatever vain reason, dabbed some scented oil that had somehow found its way into her possession (likely left over from when Andraste had commanded the Vigil) behind her ears, on the front of her throat, and then on the tips of her pauldrons. Let her Wardens at least think that she didn't smell. When at least she felt properly groomed, she fit the eye patch on her head once more.
She met Loghain in the hallway with a half-smiled plastered on her face. "Do I look suitable?"
"Yes." Loghain was smirking. "I never would have guessed from your appearance that you've been sulking for several days."
The Warden brushed past him. There was no use in persisting with the argument. She heard his footsteps in the hall behind her, as well as the gentler padding of Dane's large paws. Down the hall they went, down the stairs, and into the hall where the Grey Wardens took their breakfast. The air smelt like fresh bread and honey, though there was also the bitter tang of sliced apples - spiced apples - too.
She breezed towards the table, walking on the tips of her toes as she used to do back in Highever when she was late to breakfast. Varel was waiting for her at her chair at the head of the table, and the Seneschal of the Vigil dutifully pulled it out for her. With knowledge that Loghain was watching her from the corner of his eye, she thanked Varel with a light touch to his own armored hand and then turned to face her Wardens.
Loghain was to her left, Carver was to her right, and next to Loghain sat Sigrun, and next to Carver sat Oghren. At the ends of the table were Anders and Nathaniel. Carver had managed to escape their animosity this morning, though that did not stop him (or them, for that matter) from looking down the length of the table with narrowed eyes. Sigrun was clutching her bowl of porridge in her hands, and shooting the Warden furtive glances. Her grip seemed to tighten when she saw Carver casually slide his bowl of porridge towards the Warden with a finger.
"Don't suppose you want this?" he asked.
The Warden chuckled and shook her head. "No, not today. I had a large supper, and it has not yet left my stomach. I think though," she stretched over the table and tore off a hunk of bread with her hands, and then fished around for a honey pot, "that I will have some of this." She settled the pot of honey next to the butter, and then spread both delicious substances over the bread. Gold smothered white, and the Warden didn't stop until honey was leaking down the sides of the hunk of bread. She licked away the runaway droplets with tiny flicks of her pink tongue, flashing white teeth at Carver who was looking at her with a raised eyebrow.
Conversation at the table was mild, if not deceptively pleasant. Anders and Nathaniel kept to themselves, murmuring at one another from across the table in tones too low to make out the words. Not that anyone could have, even if they'd tried. Oghren had enough volume to his voice that could fill the expanse of the hall, and he was using this to great effect, belching loudly and exclaiming satisfaction. Sigrun was alternating between wrinkling her nose and putting a hand to her mouth to hide her snickering and girlish smiles. Carver was doing his best to ignore the dwarf completely, and had his attention fixed firmly on the Warden. Loghain was left out of most of the interaction, and merely watched what was happening. They looked like normal Grey Wardens. They were acting like normal Grey Wardens.
"Are we training this afternoon?" asked Sigrun to the Warden. Her large eyes were still half-shut from her smiling.
The Warden inclined her head to Loghain. "I assume yes."
Loghain saw the queue and nodded. "Indeed."
"We'll continue the rounds from yesterday."
Sigrun burst out into another wide smile. "You know what that means?"
"That means some broody human is going to get to know the dirt very well!"
"It isn't fair. You're half my size. If I hit you, I'll kill you."
"Nah," Sigrun shook her head, and sent her braids flying. "I'm a dwarf. Made of rock, remember?"
"Rock can shatter if it's dropped from a high enough ledge."
"You aren't tall enough for that."
"Meh," Carver pushed away his plate of half-eaten food. "It still doesn't feel right."
"Carver," the Warden rested her elbow on the table and leaned over it, "she can take more of a beating than you or I can."
Sigrun nodded at her words. "Legion of the Dead." She jammed a thumb into her leather-patched tunic. "That's me."
"I'll do it," Carver grumbled, "I just won't like doing it."
"Bah," it was Oghren who spoke, "the boy can't do it. He's all wishy washy. Wiggly. Like a worm." He belched.
"A bit early to be drinking," Loghain commented mildly, "don't you think?"
Oghren patted his flask. "Never too early."
"No wonder your wife left you." Carver flashed Oghren a contemptuous stare.
"I left her! And it's none of your soddin' business!"
"That's right," the Warden interrupted quickly, "it isn't our business. However, I have sent the letter to Felsi. We shall have to see what she says." She saw fear flash over Oghren's face. "It'll be for the best. A child needs a father."
Oghren only grumbled something under his red beard and reached for his flask.
The Warden was as equally as reluctant to discuss her own family in public, let alone another Warden's. In that, at least, she had some empathy, and it was what stayed her tongue from wagging. She knew Oghren; prosthelytizing had little effect on the dwarf. Oghren couldn't be quilted into anything by another person if he didn't want to be, such a thing only worked if Oghren could bring himself to do it. A discussion in private would not help, but having Felsi and the child in proximity to him would spur Oghren to act. And if it did not... it was the least that the Grey Wardens, or at least the Warden Commander of Ferelden, owed Felsi for her sacrifice. Even if the two never reconciled but Felsi decided to stay in Amaranthine or the Vigil, it meant that the Grey Wardens were expanding their influence.
And that influence was everything.
Everyone knew that the Grey Wardens were excellent trading partners. Val Royeaux and cities like it had large quarters dedicated to Grey Warden families, and such quarters were often bustling centers of trade. Everywhere except Ferelden knew the worth of the Grey Wardens, just as the Grey Wardens knew their own worth.
Everyone knew that where Grey Wardens resided, so too did hundreds of vendors and traders from all corners of Thedas, all trying to sell their wares at reasonable prices to attract the attention of the Grey Wardens. Grey Wardens needed housing, clothes, armor, weapons, food - and their families needed a variety of other living essentials. Grey Wardens would accept cheaply made weapons, but they also knew the worth of a strong, well-made sword and a quality breastplate. And if they didn't, they soon would when they felt the fists of a genlock or the sword of a hurlock colliding with their chest. Grey Wardens needed quality tools to do their jobs - and they were willing to pay for them.
And everyone also knew that those cities that housed Grey Wardens benefited greatly from those vendors. There were taxes and tariffs and rent to be collected. Moreover, because of the variety of goods available for the Grey Wardens, there was consequently a variety of goods available to the general population of that city as well, due to the natural economic spillover. Vendors were not particularly picky when it came to their customers, so long as they could pay. Often, this resulted in a city with happier, more enriched citizens, for their life was made better by the variety of goods they had access to.
Everyone knew this except Ferelden.
But the Warden knew it. She had seen it with her own eye. If she could create a Grey Warden compound, she could begin to attract the business that Amaranthine needed to recover. That Ferelden needed to recover. In fact, she didn't even need to create a Grey Warden compound, she just needed to make it worthwhile for the vendors to come to Amaranthine and trade with her. What could she do? She could double, even triple the amount of Grey Wardens in her ranks, but that seemed foolish given that she'd yet to master having even six Wardens under her command. She bemoaned the structural necessities of ruling; things had been much simpler when she had been working against the law, rather than within it. Short of recruiting, she wasn't sure what else was available to her. There was always the possibility of claiming the Silver Order as a Grey Warden auxiliary branch, and using them as a pretext for her need...
The Warden shook her head to clear her thoughts. "Oh, yes?"
Loghain let out a small sigh. "I am going to take my leave and see Cauthrien about the afternoon's training."
"Of course." The Warden inclined her head. "You are excused."
When Loghain was safely out of the hall, the Warden found herself on the receiving end of a surprising sort of smile coming from Carver. It was one that she hadn't seen in a long time, not since before the Blight. Not since Alistair. It was a bold smile, one that she hadn't ever expected to see coming from someone like Carver. With Alistair, the smile had been quite natural. Both of them were Grey Wardens. They were the last two Grey Wardens. They were surrounded by friends in an otherwise hostile environment. That smile was to be expected. The circumstance was not the same for her and Carver. While they were both Grey Wardens, they were not exactly the "last" Grey Wardens. Moreover, they were not exactly amongst friends. Carver's smile, if he wasn't careful, would attract too much unwanted attention…though it did please the Warden that Carver thought so…highly…of her.
As she stared into Carver's bright blue eyes, she recalled something Zevran had told her when she was still a fussy girl from Highever. "Beauty? Fah, what is beauty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Are you beautiful? Yes. You are beautiful like a sword. You catch a man's eye and you intrigue him, just as he is enthralled and intrigued by the sight of a sharp and glinting blade." If Carver's attraction stemmed from him thinking her pretty, or from her being his leader, or even from her being the Hero of Ferelden, the Warden really wasn't sure. What she was sure of was her own feelings. As handsome and well-muscled as Carver was, he held little other attraction for her. She did not find him particularly interesting or engaging. Were she, perhaps, fifty, and he still at his tender age, she might have changed her mind. But Carver was no older than she was, and brought nothing to the Warden that she did not already possess.
So when it was that she smiled back, it was with a slyness and a squint of her eye that showed him her suspicion. Carver was immediately taken aback by it. He blinked rapidly, and the Warden having seen the effect, chuckled and turned to Sigrun. She chatted with the dwarf briefly, before once more engaging Oghren in conversation. She nodded to Nathaniel and Anders when they left the table, though neither of them said their farewells to anyone but each other – and so her action went unrecognized, but not unnoticed. Sigrun was the next to leave, excusing herself and smiling wickedly at Carver, pointing to her eyes and then to him, as if to say, "I'm ready for you." And last to leave was Oghren, who needed to go refill his flask.
Carver and the Warden sat alone at the table, with Varel's shadow hovering in the background.
"So," Carver said, giving her that smile again.
"So," she replied, settling back against the chair. She inhaled and closed her eyes, and removed her hands from the table so that Carver could not touch her. "Are you ready for Sigrun?"
"Yeah. I think I am."
"Good. I look forward to seeing you two fight. I may learn a thing or two."
"You're supposed to be the best."
The Warden laughed aloud at that. "I am very good, but I am by no means the best. I have lost plenty of times." She opened her eye and touched one finger to her eye patch. "Such is the price of failure."
"Well, you're only human. But you're still really good."
"Maybe." She broke out into a grin despite herself – she knew what he wanted. "You want to train against me, don't you?"
"Ah, hahahaha. Well," the Warden appraised him with a quick glance, "if you beat Sigrun, you can try your luck against me."
"Consider it done."
"I already have."
Midday rolled over Amaranthine in a wave of sun and heat. The sky was endlessly blue and there was not a single cloud to be seen. There was a light breeze, but it was so gentle it did not even disturb the hems of the loose tunics that the Grey Wardens wore, nor did it tousle their hair or cool their features. The sharp rays of the sun cut across their faces, drawing beads of sweat from their skin as a sharp blade draws blood. The sweat droplets rolled in rivulets down their foreheads and noses, and pooled at the napes of their necks where it stained the pale fabrics they wore.
There were only six Grey Wardens in the courtyard. Six Grey Wardens, Cauthrien, Garevel, Varel, and a handful of the Silver Order that were being considered for the Grey Wardens. They were waiting for their Arlessa, their Commander of the Grey. Loghain was doing his best to contain his disappointment, his chest puffed out from where he was trying to stifle the sigh on his lips. Beside him, Cauthrien was staring at the doors to the Vigil proper with pursed lips and raised eyebrows. Garevel and Varel did not seem concerned, and were both engaged in a quiet conversation with one another.
Meanwhile, the Grey Wardens that had come for practice were gathering their wooden training swords and pellets, arming themselves as they saw fit. Nathaniel was sourly looking at the small wooden balls caked with chalk that were supposed to represent his "arrows." Anders, meanwhile, was staring at his hands, grinning, and then setting them on fire before blowing at them comically and letting the fire dissipate. Carver, Sigrun, and Oghren were all swinging their blades and feeling the weight of the wood in their hands.
Loghain and Cauthrien had just about given up hope that their Arlessa would join them and had turned away from the Vigil when the sound of barking and the creaking of wood reached them. Stepping out of the Vigil and into the sun came the Warden with Dane at her heels. She was still in her armor, but she had donned her helmet, and was also carrying her shield on her arm. She strode towards them with the clattering of finely beaten metal against thick leather strapping.
"My apologies for being late," she said. Her helmet obscured the top half of her face, and so the only thing to denote her humor other than her voice was the slant of the metal around her lips and jaw. She was smiling, at least for the moment. "I got caught up in the letters that arrived this morning."
Loghain grunted and nodded his head, but it was Cauthrien who was more forthcoming with what was on her mind. "I think you may be a bit over dressed."
The Warden looked down at her armor, and then back at Cauthrien. Her smile went frosty. "Over dressed? Come now, I thought the purpose of these exercises was to learn to fight with one another? I promise you, I fight very differently in my dinner tunic than I do in my armor." As far as the Warden could remember, the Grey Wardens that had been training in Weisshaupt wore their full gear.
Cauthrien sighed. "As you wish, Warden Commander." She turned to face the other Grey Wardens. She noticed that the Warden did not immediately join them, instead she stood off to the side several paces away, and seemed quite busy adjusting the straps of her shield. The Warden didn't look as though she wanted to mingle, and the other Wardens didn't look as though they wanted to mingle with her. There was a barrier between them. It was only natural that such a boundary existed, for while it was good for a commander to know her troops, it was another thing entirely for a commander to become their friend. There always had to be a certain amount of deference between the soldiers and the officer, a forced distance that was created due to the perils of death. Soldiers died, quite often at the behest of the people who commanded them. Friendships complicated an already tricky process of life and death, and even the most objective of men and women waivered when their friends were at risk. But that didn't mean commanders had the right to consider those individuals under their command as simply beasts to the slaughter. No, a balance had to be maintained, a balance that the Warden would need to discover for herself.
Carver was the one who bridged the divide between the Warden Commander and the rest of the group. He was tapping the edge of his wooden training weapon into the palm of his hand. "That's a bit unfair, don't you think?" asked Carver, looking at the Warden's scabbard. "Steel against wood?"
"I was under the impression it was real training." The Warden's smile was tight, her pink lips stretched thin over her lips. "Swords are sharp in the real world, and darkspawn don't throw wooden balls at you."
"The magic is real enough," replied Carver softly with a sour look over his shoulder at Anders.
"That is why I like my shield." The Warden held it up for emphasis, and then tapped its face loudly with her gauntlet. "Fire, ice, electricity, all the magic can do is hit this finely hammered steel."
"Just you wait until I melt it," came Anders's voice. "Or I freeze the joints in your armor so you can't lift it. You'll be cooking in your armor in no time, Commander."
"And a delicious stew of sweat, curls, and charm I will be." She flashed her teeth at Anders in what could have amounted to a smile. "Maybe even flavored with hunks of mage?" She drew her sword and allowed the sunlight to dance along the edge of its blade. "Yes, that will do. Garevel," she called, "I am entrusting my sword to you."
Garevel came trotting at the call, his hands stretched out in front of him to receive the Warden's sword. He watched her eye the dazzling elegance of the blade, its lines clean and simple, before she sheathed it, and unbuckled her scabbard. His gauntlets curled around the simple looking leather of the scabbard when it was offered, and he held the precious bundle close to his chest as he retreated.
Cauthrien oversaw getting the Warden a proper wooden replacement for her long sword, and when the Warden had finally settled on a weapon that she felt was of the correct "weight and substance," Cauthrien mustered the Wardens into action. She led them to the three melee fields that she had created earlier that morning, outlining the boundaries with painted stones so that the combatants would know their limits. Loghain was put against Nathaniel, Carver against Sigrun, and the Warden against Anders. Oghren busied himself heckling Carver. None of the Wardens had an opportunity to observe their fellows in action, since they were too engaged in their own sparring matches. But that was Cauthrien's intent, and also part of Cauthrien's own method of training. Watching was not a substitute for doing. It was Cauthrien's place to watch - to observe - and to report what she saw.
Strolling from fight to fight, Cauthrien's keen eyes watched the interplay from Warden to Warden. Sigrun and Carver were more evenly matched than either of them suspected. Carver was not a slow, sluggish brute and he wielded a long, heavy weapon with surprising speed. His blows were not accurate, but they kept the nimble Sigrun at bay long enough for him to force her out of the match perimeter at sword point. Rather than set Carver or Sigrun up against Oghren, she let them watch the remaining two matches.
Nathaniel could do little against the impenetrable wall of Loghain's shield, though the wooden short sword he used at close range was enough to give Loghain pause as he reevaluated his strategy. Loghain was often forced to step backwards or side step away from a slice. Though he lost ground to Nathaniel, he always gained it back in some way or another. Whether it was herding Nathaniel to the perimeter, or letting Nathaniel exhaust his supply of "arrows," Loghain methodically carried out his strategy. Nathaniel was faster, and quite bright, but Loghain's experience and ability to weigh attacks on a move-to-move basis were thus far winning the match.
Anders was so far undefeated in the training ring, his magic giving him an inhuman advantage. While Loghain, and to a better extent Oghren, had been able to resist the effects of many of his spells, even they had tired after falling repeatedly into grease puddles and chipping away the ice that had frozen their legs to the floor. The Warden was facing the same sorts of challenges, though she was remarkably more adept at avoiding Anders's spells and using her shield in new and creative ways to deflect them. Cauthrien knew that the current Fereldan king was a former-Templar-in-training. Doubtlessly, he had given the Warden some tips. The Warden understood that it only took one spell connecting with her body to effectively end the match, and it was this knowledge that seemed to have Anders gritting his teeth as he tried new, interesting, and non-lethal (for such was the stipulation on his magic) ways to trap her.
Cauthrien estimated she had another ten minutes before she would call the matches a draw, though it was only after five that victory was in sight for the groups. As Loghain ended his match against Nathaniel with a sharp thrust of his sword to Nathaniel's exposed side, the Warden charged headlong, shield up, into Anders. Anders sent out a bolt of frost-laced magic at the Warden's exposed legs, his fingers turning and twisting as he directed and shaped the energy. The Warden saw this; she had anticipated it. She dropped her shield low, slid it from her arm, and darted sideways. Anders was still forming the spell, turning the shield and the air below it into a solid block of ice, as the Warden closed the remaining distance. Anders didn't have time to cast another spell before a blunt, wooden point brushed under his chin.
"I was holding back," said Anders with an insolent, indignant brush of his fingers over the wooden sword tip, pushing it away from his neck.
The Warden was breathing heavily, and sweat was dripping over her lips. "So was I."
Anders scowled as she licked at her sweat droplets, or perhaps he scowled at the realization that there was someone else who could match him arrogance for arrogance. All that mattered to Cauthrien, for it was she watched the interactions between the two with careful eyes, was that the match ended with the Warden's sword touching Anders's skin. Anders, upon winning his matches, wasn't so quick to rein in his prowess. Catching Carver's legs in a block of ice had prompted him to "thaw" Carver with a well placed patch of grease and fire. He'd extinguished the fire long before the ice melted when Carver began to bellow and threaten at the top of his lungs, but Anders had proved his point. It was surprising that the Warden didn't push hers - though there wasn't much she could to Anders with her little wooden training sword, sans give him a few splinters.
"All right, Wardens," Cauthrien said, extending her arm to gesture at the makeshift arenas. "Very well done. Take a moment to collect yourselves, and then I want to see Warden Carver and the Warden Commander front and center, Loghain and Sigrun to my left, and Nathaniel and Oghren to my right. Anders, feel free to watch."
"I'll be the perfect spectator." Anders held up a hand that sparkled and crackled with lightning. He grinned at Cauthrien and flashed his eyebrows at her.
But Cauthrien did not return the smile. She instead turned her attention elsewhere - mostly to the curious interaction between Carver and the Commander. Cauthrien was quite adept at watching without seeing, and from the corner of her eye she observed the strange courtship.
Carver grinned, and then swept a muscled forearm over his forehead. "Maker, it is hot." His black hair was slick with sweat and droplets were dangling from its tips. His forearm not being enough to staunch the flow of sweat that trickled into his eyes, he grasped the hem of his faded tunic and lifted it to his face. He scrubbed and wiped at his nose and forehead, lifting his shirt up to reveal the chiseled cut of his stomach. Each muscle was visible against his flushed skin, though the coarse black hair trailing from the center of his stomach downward was doing its best to obscure much of the musculature. And Carver, knowing exactly what he was showing, and exactly who he was showing it to, slipped the shirt straight over his head and wrapped it about his forearm. "Ah," he sighed, flexing and rolling his shoulders, "that's better."
The Warden had raised her shield to cover the bottom half of her face - the only part of her face that was visible in her helmet. But Cauthrien could guess why she'd done it - she could almost see the singular pinprick of light from the Warden's eye - the glint of appreciation. "I would hate," the Warden said in a voice muffled and low, "to bruise you too badly, Carver."
Oghren broke out into a round of deep belly-laughter, lowering the flask of ale in his hand as he wrapped an arm around himself. "You look like a woman, Junior. Not enough hair on ya."
Besides the previously mentioned trail leading into the tops of Carver's thin breeches, and the hair over his forearms, there wasn't much else on him. Not that Cauthrien was looking.
"Even mage-boy's got more than you."
Carver tossed his head back. "Why are you looking at my chest anyway? Are you jealous?" He flexed - first the left pectoral, then the right.
The Warden's shield seemed to pull even tighter to her body.
"Dwarven ladies love hair." Oghren tapped his chest lightly with his fist. "You look like a nug."
"And nugs," interrupted the Warden Commander, "are delicious."
"And now," continued Cauthrien, "your reprieve is over. Places, please."
The Warden Commander and Carver were already in position, as was Loghain. Oghren, Nathaniel, and Sigrun took longer to saunter over to their respective partners, with Sigrun asking Cauthrien who she was pitted against again, and Nathaniel still busily whispering away to Anders before Cauthrien had to scold him. "Warden Nathaniel, when you and Warden Anders are finished with your gossip, feel free to let the rest of us know."
Anders flashed her a wide smile. "We're confessing our undying love. Give it a moment."
"No," Cauthrien put her hands on her hips. "Now." She received an approving nod from Loghain, but what the Warden Commander's turn of her head meant, she wasn't sure. Either way, Anders stopped speaking, and Nathaniel went to his place against Oghren, and when she was certain that the Wardens were ready, she gave the command to begin.
Loghain did not suffer the same restraints as Carver did in fighting Sigrun. He seemed quite sure in his knowledge about what sort of punishment the dwarf could take. And Sigrun looked delighted at the prospect of taking on a shielded opponent. More often than not, Sigrun's dual oaken knives carved their blunt tips over Loghain's sturdy shield. Loghain was too clever to let Sigrun's obvious feints and ploys get to him, and he caught on quickly to the need to compensate the level of his shield. Sigrun attacked high, but her real goal was always to catch Loghain's knees unguarded, and Loghain being wise to this, he dropped his shield arm several inches to give himself better protection. He ultimately won his match, though it was with great apologies. He caught Sigrun full on the face with his shield, and sent her sprawling backwards. He'd broken Sigrun's nose, as evidenced by the blood pouring out of her nostrils and its crooked tint, but she sat up grinning and it wasn't long before Anders was kneeling at her side and casting a cantrip.
The Warden Commander and Carver were as equally as matched, though their combat was not quite as explosive as that between Sigrun and Loghain. Carver was always the aggressor, rushing headlong into the Warden on his long legs and swinging his sword at her left side. Carver knew, just as everyone else there did, about the Warden Commander's handicap. She had lost her eye on the left side - her shield side - and that was the side she was most vulnerable on. But the Warden was surprising Cauthrien, as she was holding up quite well to Carver's continual left-oriented swings. In fact, that was how she won. Carver's predictability and brute force per swing gave the Warden the perfect opportunity to upset his balance. As Carver attacked her left side once more, the Warden let herself drop to one knee. Carver went up on his tip toes, not expecting the shield to give way with his sword, and the Warden's sword darted out and brushed against the muscled jut of his ribs.
Carver darted away, laughing at where the blow had struck him. "You're supposed to be blind from that eye!"
But while the other two matches ended, Oghren and Nathaniel's seemed to drag on. Nathaniel was faster than Oghren, but Oghren did not tire. It didn't matter that he was outpaced, simply because Oghren wasn't outmatched. Bellowing and sprinting and grunting, Oghren was only steps away from Nathaniel, and no matter what Nathaniel did: hurling wooden balls at Oghren, bringing out his short sword, or even jumping clear over him, he couldn't send Oghren off. He lacked Anders's magical abilities, and so he couldn't hinder Oghren's movement. And he also lacked Loghain's thick shield, so he couldn't withstand a straight blow-by-blow encounter with the foam-spitting dwarf. All Nathaniel could do was flow with Oghren's swings, relaxing his muscles and side-stepping obvious strikes. But Oghren ultimately won, elbowing Nathaniel in the groin when Nathaniel was bending like a reed in the storm of his onslaught. As Nathaniel sank to his knees, winded and in pain, Oghren continued to dart and race, letting whatever frenzy that had overtaken him end. He seemed to know better than to attack the kneeling Nathaniel.
Anders, having attended to Sigrun, darted over to Nathaniel's side. Nathaniel waived off his help, shaking his head and wheezing out, "no, no." He did accept Anders's outstretched hand, and letting the mage haul him to his feet, he joined Cauthrien and the other Grey Wardens with a pained expression and a pale face.
"Well done," Cauthrien said. She looked at each Warden in turn. "Hopefully, you each recognize the strengths, weaknesses, and peculiarities of your fellow Wardens' fighting styles, and as we continue these exercises, you'll soon begin to see how you can better adapt your tactics to those of the men and women fighting beside you." She saw faces that were young and old, covered and uncovered, hopeful and reserved staring back at her. Unity was not there yet, but it could be. It was a breath away, Cauthrien just needed to move a body half-drowned, with screaming lungs, up to the surface, to break over waves of discord and a glassy sea top of distrust.
"When do I get to set things on fire?"
"Shut up, Anders."
"Make me, Sigrun."
Cauthrien let the Warden do her scolding, though when the Warden didn't seem inclined to say anymore, Cauthrien continued on, "you must be flexible, and willing to adapt. As you can see, we are joined by some members of the Silver Order today. They come highly recommended from Captain Garevel and the Seneschal both. Today, they will be your opponents. Tomorrow, they will be your team mates. Perhaps in the future, they may even be Grey Wardens." Cauthrien was looking at the Warden Commander when she said this - and she saw no change in the woman's lips to note her displeasure or her acceptance. There was only an icy stillness. Loghain had given Cauthrien the idea to incorporate potential recruits for the Grey Wardens from the Silver Order, though if this wasn't an idea shared by the Warden Commander, she was surprisingly acquiescent. "I'll ask the Warden Commander and Ser Winnegrad to step forward."
The Warden Commander did as was requested, brushing past her fellows to stand in front of Cauthrien. Beside her stood Ser Winnegrad. Winnegrad was Cauthrien's age, or at least she looked it. Her red hair was held back with a black leather thong, but tight, wiry curls had escaped and stuck out on either side of her temples. She had blue eyes, and a long, narrow face that bore skin pulled tightly over white scars. She was a veteran of the Battle of Denerim, as well as the Battle for the Vigil. She had been a member of the Amaranthine City Guard, before being conscripted by Arl Howe to fight in larger battles than just fighting crime. And now she was a founding member of the Silver Order. She had come a long way from jailing thugs.
"Warden Commander," Cauthrien inclined her head, "Ser Winnegrad, go to the center circle and draw your weapons. You may commence upon my signal."
Ser Winnegrad gave a firm nod. The Warden Commander did nothing - she simply turned on her heel and shouldered her way through the Grey Wardens to the training arena she'd come from. Cauthrien waited for each woman to arm and orient themselves - the Warden drawing her sword and swinging her shield arm, while Ser Winnegrad's longer, wood capped polearm stood straight and tall in the air - before she gave the signal to start.
At the sound of Cauthrien's cry, the Warden immediately dropped low into a crouch, her legs spread wide and her shield held between her legs. Her shoulders rolled with the rippling of her thighs, and she swayed like a ship at sea. She moved in a strange, loping gait, hopping and darting with powerful thrusts of her legs. It was a familiar sort of style - reminiscent of a spider going after its prey - or a darkspawn, for that matter, on the hunt. Ser Winnegrad didn't seem to know what to make of the Warden's unusual change in style. She released a few tentative jabs of her polearm, each of which was easily avoided. She took a step back, inching closer to the boundary, when the Warden bellowed out something feral and guttural. The Warden didn't speak in words, just emotions. It was a single screech of rage, and Cauthrien noticed how the other Grey Wardens shifted from foot to foot at the sound of it.
Ser Winnegrad became more aggressive with her jabs, sweeping what would have been the wickedly curved blade at the Warden's left-side. Each of these the Warden scurried away from, scuttling like a crab on the surface. But each dodge only sent the Warden scurrying closer. Winnegrad couldn't push the Warden out of the circle, having already given up too much ground from her initial surprise and confusion. It was her undoing, as the Warden continued to edge towards her. Winnegrad no longer had the reach of her polearm to keep the Warden at bay, and then she was soon at the Warden's mercy, with her heels skirting the edge of a boundary stone. One shove from the Warden would have her out of the ring, and one tap of her sword against Ser Winnegrad's cheek would have the end of the match.
But the Warden did something surprising. She stepped to her right, and then sent her shield into Winnegrad's side. Winnegrad fell sideways, half in the circle, half out. The Warden dropped her sword and shield and pounced upon the struggling Winnegrad. She backhanded the woman, and a stunned Winnegrad didn't even cry out. Curiously enough, Winnegrad let out a shocked chuckle, and stared in bewilderment up at the snarling, one-eyed Warden. Cauthrien called for the match to end, but the Warden didn't stop. Instead, she grabbed at Winnegrad's legs and began to drag the woman away. Winnegrad let out another peal of shocked laughter.
"Stop laughing and fight me!" the Warden bellowed, her chest heaving as she dragged Winnegrad's lightly-armored form along the training grounds. "Fight me! Scream! Kick! Stab at me!"
But the Warden's jeering only made Winnegrad laugh even more, the woman covering her face with her gauntlets at the absurdity of it.
The Warden made it twice around the training ring before she at last threw Winnegrad's legs down to the ground and knelt beside her. She took the woman's chin roughly between the claw of her gauntlet, and brought their faces together. Her upper lip curled in disgust. "Allow me to explain, O Would-Be Warden, what has just happened. What is happening even now as we speak. Because you did not fight me," the Warden hissed, "I have now taken you into my warren. My brothers and I have ripped what pretty, shiny armor you wear from your body, and laying you bare on the slick putrification of our floor, we begin to violate you. We fuck you," she growled, "we spit on you, and we unmake you. And when we're through, we remake you in the image of our mother.
"You should be begging me for death right now. Except you cannot. Your throat is filled with bile and blood and flesh, because all you will know now is a hunger unmatched. You will eat, and you will grow, and you will breed, and you will be unrecognized, and unmourned. And all because," the Warden drew in a ragged breath, "you did not fight me." She sent the woman another sneer and stood. She stretched her arm out, sweeping it across the line of Silver Order recruits. "You all wish to be Grey Wardens, and you wish to fight beside us. And I can teach you how to fight darkspawn," the Warden called out, "and I can teach you how to kill them - but I cannot teach you how to survive them. And for that reason alone, Ser Winnegrad," the Warden didn't even look at the woman, she looked at Cauthrien instead, "you can never be a Grey Warden."
Cauthrien raised her eyebrows at the speech, and at the sudden sullenness that had come upon the Grey Wardens. Normally boisterous Oghren was silent, and Sigrun had turned whiter than the milk she had taken a liking to. Anders and Nathaniel were no longer whispering their love to one another, and Loghain's jaw was visibly clenching and unclenching. It was only the Warden who, cool, unflinching, and sauntering with what seemed to be a deliberate swinging of her hips, looked unmoved by the words she had spoken. Winnegrad was visibly shaken, and had eyes wide with confusion. What Varel thought was difficult to say, as the Seneschal was wearing his perpetually worried expression, and this was echoed on Captain Garevel's face to a lesser extent. The only ones who seemed to know what had happened were the Wardens, and they didn't look talkative.
When the Warden did, finally, look down at the open-mouthed Ser Winnegrad, it was to extend her hand. Winnegrad hesitated several moments, staring between the gauntlet and the Warden's grim mouth.
The Warden let out an irritated puff of air and smacked her lips. "I am harsh, Ser Winnegrad, but I am not cruel. Take my hand; I'll not drop you."
Winnegrad took the Warden's gauntlet and was hauled to her feet in a cloud of kicked-up dust. "Arlessa," she said gruffly, with a curt nod of her head.
"You will thank me later." The grimness in the Warden's features lingered, though they were tempered by the softening of her lips at their corners. "Trust me."
"As you say, Arlessa." Winnegrad looked away from the Warden, her angular features pointed towards the opposite end of the courtyard.
"Are there," the Warden turned to look at Loghain, "any more recruits you would have us test today?"
Cauthrien watched Loghain out of the corner of her eye. Years of service had made her familiar with his moods and his temperament. Loghain was somewhere between angry and disappointed, though with Loghain, it was difficult to tell whether he was disappointed in himself, or at someone else.
"No," replied Loghain curtly. "Though I'll suggest we resume our Warden to Warden skirmishes."
"Excellent." The Warden Commander nodded and then gestured to the ring of stones she'd recently stepped from. "I'll be waiting right there for the first Grey Warden who wants a challenge."
The challenge had the appropriate effect, for it drew the back the clouds of fear and uncertainty that had settled on the Grey Wardens. And thus lifted out of their gloom, they returned to their naturally buoyant, if not destructive selves. Sigrun, Oghren, and Carver in particular were lining up for a shot at their Commander, trading jibes about who could get past her shield - and the Warden, for her part, grinned. Nathaniel and Anders returned again to their private conversation, though Cauthrien saw a glimmer of something in the flinty pools of Nathaniel's eyes very time he cast them his commander's way; temptation, if she had to guess. And Loghain, this time, stood apart. He was what the Warden Commander had been earlier - an outsider (well, an outsider with a panting, tail-wagging Dane at his feet). But Loghain wasted no opportunities, and used his distance to speak with Varel, Garevel, and the Silver Order recruits who had come.
And by the end of the day, everything seemed to go back to normal.
"Loghain," the Warden called, knocking on his door with a gauntlet, "hurry up. We'll be late to the council meeting." With her free hand, she held the stack of reports and drawings to her chest.
Dane placed his paw against the door for emphasis, his stubby nails scraping the wood.
"Even Dane thinks you'll be late."
Heavy footsteps on the other side of the door indicated that Loghain's attention had been gained. He opened the door, revealing a face flushed with sleep and a cheek marked with the wrinkles of his pillow.
The Warden smirked. "Did I wake you?"
"As a matter of fact you did." Loghain folded his arms over his chest. He was dressed in a tight-fitting green tunic and a pair of black breeches. He was barefoot, the dark hair standing out in contrast against the stark white background of his toes. "I rather expected you'd forget about me and just go on your own."
"Forget about my favorite Second in Command?" scoffed the Warden. "Never. You've ten minutes to make yourself presentable, and then I expect to see you in the Grand Hall. I'm expecting our guests to arrive within the hour."
"They're coming here?" Loghain raised an eyebrow. "You aren't going to them?"
"Of course not. If they come to me, then they are all on common ground."
Loghain shrugged. "If you say so."
"And I do." She smiled. "Get dressed and come downstairs. Do not make me come find you. Or send Dane after you."
"He wouldn't even make it up the stairs without help."
Dane whined at the insult, and then let his tongue loll out of his mouth when Loghain's fingers brushed over the top of his head in apology.
"Come alone, Dane." The Warden gave a sharp whistle and canted her head down the hall to the stairs. She trotted away with the obedient war dog padding along behind her, his panting filling the silence of the halls they walked through.
Upon entering the Grand Hall, the Warden found the Seneschal dutifully directing the Vigil's staff in the placement of tables, chairs, and refreshments. There were platters of bread and cheese, as well as pots of honey, butter, and jam that had been purchased from Amaranthine City the day before.
"Warden Commander," said Varel, tipping his head. "You look well."
"Thank you." The Warden smiled. "I am hiding my bruises beneath the armor."
Varel chuckled politely. "Still sore, are you?"
"Only if I bend awkwardly," she admitted. The Warden's body had seen worse, but she was nonetheless sore from the challenge she'd set for her Wardens a handful of days ago. While not overly bruised, the Warden was sporting several sore joints. Her forearm, in particular, was the sorest part of her body. As of late, her arm had been aching something fierce - more so than usual. There had always been some lingering pain in the arm, and she had been told to expect as much from Winnifred. The Archdemon had shattered the bones, and its dark magic had lingered in the fragments and below her skin. Though it was healed and (hopefully) purged, it still would twinge from time to time (mostly when the weather was rainy), but the Warden usually could ignore the discomfort. But ever since the night the Warden had suffered what she considered a fit of delusional mania, the ache had grown to the point where she couldn't ignore it as easily. At that moment, she was blaming all the pain in her elbow, forearm, and wrist on the repeated hammering of blows to her shield. Admitting that the pain could be from something else was...not something she was willing to dwell on.
"Ah," Varel nodded. "Should I send for an herbalist or an apothecary from the City?"
"No." The Warden shook her head. "There's no need for that. A day or two of resting should set my body at ease."
"And by rest," Varel said dryly, "I am sure you mean attending to your duties as Arlessa?"
"Why, Varel!" She grinned, "how ever did you know?" Seeing the Seneschal chuckle quietly and then shrug, the Warden took the opportunity to inquire about the food. "Is this for guests only? Or does the Arlessa get to eat it too?"
Varel gestured to the table. "Help yourself, Commander. Though, do try and leave some for your guests?"
"Oh," the Warden drawled as she stalked over to the end of the table, standing on her tip toes as she peered at the various platters and their delicious offerings, "don't worry about that." The table spread was perfect, except that it was missing one very important element. "Varel, where is the wine?"
"It is a bit early for drink, you don't think?"
The Warden looked over her shoulder at her Seneschal.
With his mistress's attention elsewhere, Dane took the liberty to lift his great head and snatch several hunks of bread and cheese from a platter that rested too close to the table's edge.
"Of course it isn't too early." The Warden let out a righteous puff of air. "One cannot negotiate without wine. You." she pointed to an elven servant that was discreetly moving behind the Seneschal. "Go to the cellars and fetch up several kegs of the finest we've got. Let no one say that the Arlessa of Amaranthine was not a good host."
The servant gave a quick nod and then darted away to carry out the instruction.
Varel folded his hands in front of him obediently. "Is there anything else missing, Commander?"
"I do not think so." The Warden turned back to the table and ran a scrutinizing grey over its length. "But if I should think of anything, I will inform you." She placed her handful of papers on the corner of the table.
"As you wish." Varel tipped his head courteously - even though he knew the Warden could not see it. Seeing Aura, who had been placed in charge of the Vigil's kitchens by the previous Warden Commander, Varel made his way over to her.
The Warden watched him go through the haze of the mage eye, and thought she saw an unnatural bounce to his slate-grey form. She pursed her lips. Another form was approaching her - one much smaller than Varel, and the Warden would have thought it Sigrun if not for the relative shape of the figure. Sigrun had broad shoulders and slender hips, but this figure had a wider bottom than top, and also lacked the rather boisterous, bubbling gait that Sigrun adopted when she wasn't in battle. The Warden was curious enough as to who was approaching to turn around and look, but doing so would have given up the ruse of her blindness. The figure wasn't making any sound, and it had not called to her, and to turn too soon would be to move without a reason...
"Warden Commander Cousland."
The Warden turned at the sound of her title. It was Ellen Woolsey, the treasurer that Weisshaupt had sent to Andraste. She had never met Amaranthine's new master of finances, as Woolsey had been quite sick upon the Warden's return. Woolsey had kept to the sanctity of her own quarters, receiving help from Aura and Varel where it was required, and had apparently refused Anders's assistance. As Anders had complained loudly at dinner the day previous, "the old cow hates mages. She's only making herself worse off. If she accepted my help, she'd be walking in no time." The Warden restrained her smirk - no doubt Anders felt quite inferior, knowing that Woolsey was now walking about and looking quite well-rested.
"Mistress Woolsey!" The Warden extended her hand. "What a pleasure to see you in good health. I had heard you were sick, and that you were not accepting visitors."
Woolsey nodded. "Indeed, I was not. People are disturbing, fussy creatures and are a detriment to recovery." Woolsey's white hair was pulled back into a neat bun, and she had taken the time that morning to discreetly paint her face. Beyond the subtle rouge on her cheeks, a keen observer could make out the paleness of her skin - but the illusion of good health she had painted was quite convincing. And dressed in her simple grey gown with black sash, Woolsey's good health was all that one was supposed to notice.
The Warden gave a subdued chuckle. "I agree. Will you be joining us this morning?"
"In that case," the Warden crossed her arms over her chest and leaned forward, "what is the possibility of seeking remedy from Weisshaupt for our darkspawn related injuries?" Woolsey was a great deal shorter than the Warden, and the Warden's neck twinged at the angle she held it.
"Weisshaupt is not normally in the habit of funding the reconstruction of non-Grey Warden outposts." Woolsey's dark eyes were as unyielding as her words. "If you were asking doe money for the Vigil, then Weisshaupt would likely fund a quarter of the reconstruction. However, I take it you are not."
"I am, actually," the Warden half-lied. "The Vigil is not in the state it should be - it wasn't when I left, and it certainly isn't now that I've returned."
"You would have to promise that the entirety of all funds received from Weisshaupt would only benefit the Vigil."
The Warden raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that why you're here? To oversee appropriate use of Grey Warden funds, as well as all the necessary investment and donation matters that arise?"
"Of course." Woolsey smiled. "I merely have to make sure you understand my purpose."
"You manage my money," replied the Warden coyly, "you make sure I don't spend it all in one place."
"What if I want the Grey Wardens to fund the entire reconstruction of Vigil's Keep? What would I have to do to make that happen?"
"Truthfully, Warden Commander," Woolsey sounded almost apologetic, "there is nothing you can do. If Amaranthine was as well-established as Val Royeaux or Montsimmard, you might have a compelling request. However, Amaranthine has not yet reached its potential. It could still fail, and Weisshaupt would not be willing to invest much wealth into Amaranthine until it was sure of its success."
"That makes no sense." The Warden frowned. "Val Royeaux and Montsimmard, by virtue of their establishment, would have the funds in their respective coffers to rebuild their compounds from the stones up. Anything Weisshaupt would contribute would be negligible in comparison. Moreover, both such cities likely have dedicated patrons, or at least a willing monarch, who subsidize them in part. We have no such thing. If anything, Weisshaupt should be spending more money on us because we lack not only patrons, but coin in general. What good is the coin if it is sat on? There's no utility in it. Gold has to work; it has to be spent."
Woolsey chuckled, and it was not unkind, though her mirth did not quite reach her eyes. She had listened, but she was not sympathetic. "You may be right, Warden Commander. But even if you are, it makes no difference. The Vigil would still be too much of a liability for such a large capital investment."
"It still makes no sense."
"I am sure you could manage the money better."
The Warden nodded. "I could. If I was First Warden, it would be one of my first acts. I would," she paused, "I will change such policies, and I will make them fair, and more importantly, I will have them make sense."
"With all respect, Warden Commander," Woolsey responded with a shake of her head, "if I was you, I would focus more on my current relationships with my neighbors, rather than on my dreams of ascension within the Grey Wardens. I'll tell you what you have to do." Woolsey drew the Warden close. "You need to establish a web of donors if you are to survive. Without a current stream of income, you will not last more than a year. And if you cannot find these donors in Ferelden, you can consider crossing Ferelden's borders to find them. Though I do caution you to keep your finances between the Arling and the Grey Wardens separate. I can imagine the Ferelden nobles not looking favorably on your Arling being subsidized by Orlesian charity."
"What about trade?" asked the Warden. "What do I have to do to bring in merchants from across Thedas into Amaranthine and to the Vigil? Donors are not enough; nobles are finicky and they make poor decisions with their coin. We need to offer something to Ferelden, to the Waking Sea, if we're to establish any sort of permanent income."
"Tariffs and taxes?" Woolsey mulled over the Warden's words. "Two things: the port at Amaranthine City must be larger, and there must be some sort of incentive for merchants to come. Taxes and tariffs will not work in Ferelden as they do in Orlais. Orlais can act as they do because they are the center of Thedas. Everyone wishes to trade there, and so everyone will pay what they have to in order to do so."
The Warden put a hand to her forehead. "But if we could offer the same environment, but less expensive, why wouldn't they come to us?"
"You lack a reputation. Ferelden lacks a reputation."
"How do I get a reputation without the money? It makes no sense." The Warden dropped her hand to her side and sighed deeply. "This is my task for you, Woolsey. Find a way to make us popular with merchants; preferably a way that is palatable for my country."
"Very well." Woolsey gave the Warden a small nod. "Do not expect an immediate answer from me though."
"I just want an answer, that's all."
A loud clatter from behind the Warden had her spinning on her heels to face it. A platter of food had been pulled off the table, and peering around its side, the Warden saw a happy Dane scarfing down as much cheese as he could fit into his mouth. "Dane!" she scolded.
The scolding was followed by a high-pitched wail and the scuffing of slippers across the floor as Aura raced to shoo Dane away. "Oh, naughty!" she chided, chirping the words like a bird, "such a naughty dog!" Aura was joined shortly by Varel, who knelt beside Dane and began plucking those pieces of cheese he had yet to eat off the floor and onto the platter that Aura had salvaged. "He has chewed the edge!"
"Of course he did," said the Warden at the woman's rather inane comment. "His teeth are quite strong." She knelt opposite Varel, one gauntlet recovering cheese, the other holding Dane in place with a firm hand on his collar.
"You need to discipline him, Arlessa," Aura scolded, scowling at the Warden from behind eyelashes as golden as her hair.
"If you had put a platter of food on the floor for him," replied the Warden airily, "he wouldn't have stolen from the table. As it is, I am the only who provides any sort of accommodation for Dane's meals - mostly at the expense of my own dinner." It was true for the most part. If Dane wanted food, and he wasn't resorting to stealing, the Warden had to give him the food. The servants at the Vigil had yet to start bringing an extra plate with food for Dane. "He isn't a stranger; at least," the Warden looked up at the standing Aura, "he isn't a stranger to most people at the Vigil. Poor Ser Dane," she crooned. "Poor, starving, Ser Dane."
On command, Dane sat on his haunches and raised his dark eyes to Aura. He let out a low, mournful whine, tilting his head first left, then right.
Aura had to look away. "In the future, I will make sure he is properly seen to."
The Warden ducked her head and smiled. "Show her how that makes you feel, Ser Dane."
Dane barked and raised his hindquarters so that he was standing once more. He trotted over Varel and the Warden's outstretched arms and sent a quick lick to Aura's exposed fingers.
Aura winced and made a face as Dane licked at the hand that held the platter. "Err...yes. Nice dog, yes. Nice dog."
The Warden chuckled and stood. She clicked her tongue and Dane returned to her side. "He likes you."
Aura said nothing to that. She merely lowered the platter for Varel as he scooped up the last of the cheese in both his gauntlets and dropped them atop the wooden plate.
The Warden helped Varel to his feet, and then watched as he escorted Aura to the kitchens, the two walking side by side with their heads tilted towards one another. With their departure came Loghain's arrival, and he strode into the Grand Hall in full polished plate and braids. He looked magnificent. And the Warden told him as much.
"You look every part a Teyrn, General, and Second-in-Command," praised the Warden.
"How fortunate for me," he replied curtly, "that I was all of those things." He gestured to the food, and at Woolsey who was seated at the far end of the long table. "Quite a spread."
"All we're missing is the wine."
Loghain pointed over her shoulder. "I think it just arrived."
The Warden turned to look at where he was pointing. She was expecting to see a servant overcome with the weight of a cask, but instead it was merely Carver. "You are no better than Anders or Nathaniel if you tease him like that. Besides, what has Carver done to you?"
Loghain shrugged. "He talks back to Cauthrien. She's started calling him 'Ser Mouth' in private. He has trouble following orders when you aren't around. I have a hard time believing he called himself a soldier."
"Well," the Warden replied dryly, "in perspective, I can think of a few people who have a hard time calling me 'Commander,' and others who have a hard time calling you 'Warden.' In short: we are all damaged people, Loghain, drawn together by subtleties that we are not aware of."
Loghain only grunted in response. He moved past the Warden and towards the table. With one hand he picked up her stack of papers and handed them to her, and with the other he reached out to snag a piece of bread. The Warden took the papers while he chewed the bread thoughtfully.
Carver approached them a sour expression on his face. "The cook told me I couldn't have anything."
"They're for our guests," explained the Warden. She put the tips of her fingers on Dane's head. "It isn't for our breakfast, unfortunately."
Carver's eyes looked at Loghain, then at Loghain's hand, and narrowed. "He's eating it."
"I'm a guest in attendance," Loghain said around the mouthful of bread. He chewed vigorously and then swallowed. "I am allowed to eat it. And as I recall, you are the one who wanted me to be here, Hawke."
Carver opened his mouth to speak, but stopped with the Warden raising her hand.
"Remember, Carver," the Warden said quietly, "whatever the builders, carpenters, bankers, and nobles don't eat, we'll get to at the end of the day."
"The bread'll be stale by then."
The Warden lifted an eyebrow. "Bread pudding?"
The Warden tossed her head towards the door. "You probably want to get out of here as quickly as you can. You do not want to be trapped here when that squawking rabble arrives."
Carver chuckled at the Warden's description and nodded his head. "Fine. I'll go see Cauthrien. Maybe she's got something for me to do."
Loghain made a noise low in his throat that earned him a hard stare from the other two Grey Wardens.
"I shall see you at dinner, Carver. Hopefully," the Warden smiled, "earlier."
Carver only nodded, and left. He just made it out a side door when the main doors to the Grand Hall burst open and revealed the long-awaited guests. Behind the group, visible in the courtyard through the open doors, was the servant with the cask of wine.
"Does it ever get easier?" murmured the Warden. "Asking for money that is?"
"No." Loghain shook his head. "It never gets easier. You just get better at doing it."
The Warden sighed through her teeth, which were revealed in the shining smile she wore.
"You will be fine." Loghain turned and touched his hand to her shoulder. "Just keep smiling at them."
As the caucus approached closer, the Warden smiled wider. She'd smile all right; she'd smile until her face shattered. Better that her face be broken, rather than her treasury.
So, there we have Chapter 38. We are moving right along and making good progress in this story arc.
Law school is, thus far, quite a lot of fun. A lot of reading and writing, but then I was that schmuck in college and business school that did all the assigned reading and took notes on it anyway. So this is nothing new.
For those of you who are still following along - thank you for reading! I have to give a super shout-out to Gene Dark, who is an endless source of inspiration. Gene, you are the Patsy to my Edina, and ilu.